He doesn’t wear a cape or mask, and he doesn’t wield a wand, but people who know Buck Brannaman have no problem calling him a hero, and most of them will tell you he’s magic. Now the rest of the country gets to see for themselves in Buck, the brilliant documentary by first-time filmmaker Cindy Meehl.

The real-life inspiration for The Horse Whisperer, Brannaman has criss-crossed the country for three decades, running equine training clinics that follow the natural horsemanship method. There are no whips and no yelling– just a firm, measured approach that, time and time again, has worked wonders. “A lot of times,” he says at one point, “I’m not helping people with their horse problems. I’m helping horses with their people problems.”

Buck intersperses footage of a few weeks’ worth of Brannaman’s training sessions in Montana and California with vivid recollections of his childhood, including terrible abuse at the hands (and belt) of his abusive father, placement into the foster care system, and then his training under the legendary horseman Ray Hunt.

Meehl interviewed not only Brannaman but also more than a dozen of his family and friends, including Whisperer star and director Robert Redford, to paint a vivid picture of a calm and gentle man who went through the darkness to come out the other side as one of the most compassionate and caring people on the planet. He never raises his voice above talking level and never makes anything close to a threatening or punishing movement, but within just a few minutes he can have even the most wild bucking colt saddled and walking its rider around a ring.

It would have been easy for Meehl (and Brannaman, for that matter) to turn Buck into a preachy gospel about how to respect and love every creature (both the two- and four-legged varieties), but she wisely decided to let us arrive at that conclusion all by ourselves. It’s as subtle as Brannaman’s training methods, yet somewhere along the way we begin to learn how to become better people when it comes to our interactions with others. As a result, Buck emerges as a wonderful documentary that’s as much a must-see as anything else to hit screens so far this year.

From the sweeping vistas of the American West to quiet moments shared between Brannaman and his family, Buck is a stunning, beautiful film, giving us a glimpse inside the mind of a man who is nothing less than fascinating, a man who realized early on that violence and intimidation never solved anything. And in my eyes, that’s a true American hero.

4/5 stars